The Jesus Virus

And other perils of modern life

A couple of years ago, OC's best alternative weekly got hit with a virus. The bug was a Microsoft Word macro virus, which, when you opened a file, randomly whisked through reorganizing the text and occasionally inserting the mystery word "wazzu." (Bonus points to any Weekly reader who noticed the one "wazzu" that made it into print.)

We still don't know how we got infected, though our tech folks thought the Internet (the Typhoid Mary of the information economy) was the most likely culprit.

Although there are real viruses out there, they are vastly outnumbered by the virus hoaxes continually circulating on the Internet. A warning about the latest, headed "New Virus Alert," showed up in my mailbox the other day, urging me to beware of an e-mail message titled "It Takes Guts to Say 'Jesus.'"

"DO NOT open it," the message warned. "It will erase everything on your hard drive. Forward this letter to as many people as you can. This is a new, very malicious virus, and not many people know about it."

Needless to say, the warning is a hoax. IBM, which was cited in the e-mail as being the source of the virus warning, denied all responsibility on its Antivirus Online Web site (www.av.ibm.com). Several other anti-virus sites have also identified the Jesus virus as a hoax, placing it in the ranks of the Good Times virus (which also purported to destroy your hard drive) and the Budweiser frogs screen saver.

The following are some ways to tell if the latest virus warning is legit or yet another hoax:

1. If the message asks you to forward it to everyone you know, we're most likely talking hoax. This is how they propagate.

2. Many virus hoaxes drop a famous name or two to lend credibility-the Jesus e-mail mentioned IBM and AOL. Check the Web site of the companies; if they've been unwittingly enlisted in a hoax, they'll usually debunk it on their site.

3. Check out the "virus" online. Two excellent sites that maintain lists of currently circulating hoaxes (and real virus threats) are the Antivirus Online and the Computer Virus Myths sites (www.kumite.com/myths).

HOUSE TAX CUTTERS

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Internet debunkers, old hoaxes never die-they just get recirculated. One urban legend that's been hanging around since 1987 is currently causing a bit of a headache for two OC representatives.

Representatives Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) have posted letters on their Web sites (www.house.gov/sanchez and www.house.gov/royce) about a proposed Internet-access "tax." Both reassure their constituents that fee hikes for local Internet access are not going to take place. Sanchez's letter states that the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering "reciprocal compensation" payments between phone companies, which could include modem calls but would not directly affect consumers. Royce's site is blunter. "If you have recently seen a message on the Internet stating that Congress or the FCC is going to charge ISPs interstate-access fees, this information is inaccurate," the site says.

The particular message Royce is referring to is the latest outbreak of a classic hoax suggesting that Congress will allow phone carriers to charge Internet users for a long-distance call every time they access the Net. The most recent version-which began cropping up on Usenet over the past few months, apparently in response to the reciprocal-compensation proposal-urges recipients to contact their representatives to protest the "tax."

Royce's press secretary, Bryan Wilkes, said they've been swamped with messages. "We have gotten hundreds upon hundreds of e-mails, letters and phone calls," he said. "With the exception of the impeachment trial, we have not received more e-mails on any other subject."

Lee Godown of Sanchez's office reports they've received probably 500 calls and e-mails since November. But he was unaware the hoax was more than a decade old.

The story has its origins in a surcharge the FCC was considering imposing on data transmission over phone lines; the agency rejected the proposal in 1988. But in 1991, it popped back up as a hoax, and authorities have been denying the story ever since. The FCC has even issued a statement debunking the hoax to little avail (read the official statement at www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Common_Carrier/Factsheets/ispfact.html). Royce's and Sanchez's efforts, while a good try, will probably be about as effective.

"I took a look at the letter [on our site] this morning," Godown said, "and it's a little confusing. We could probably be simpler about it: 'House not on fire. Don't get bucket.'"

TYPE CASTING

It used to be that anti-porn activists complained about online smutmongers taking advantage of children's sweet, innocent, trusting natures. Now they're fretting about pornographers who take advantage of kids' shoddy literacy skills.

A frequent tactic among, shall we say, less reputable adult sites is to register variations of popular site addresses in hopes of luring unwary typists to view their wares. The most infamous example, of course, is Whitehouse.com, which relies on surfers inadvertently typing www.whitehouse.com instead of the official White House address, www.whitehouse.gov. Unwilling visitors to the adult site are treated to-surprise!-lots and lots of shots of nekkid ladies, including an "Intern of the Month," "First Ladies" and other similarly themed erotica.

Santa Barbara-based Solid Oak Software, which produces the notoriously right-wing filtering-software program Cybersitter, has recently gotten all revved up about this practice, particularly when it appears to be aimed at kids. In a Feb. 16 press release, the company fulminated against the trickiness of online pornmeisters who exploit poor typing skills.

"Kids that type in playstatiom.com instead of playstation.com will not get the latest news about their Sony product," the release quoted president Brian Milburn saying.

Solid Oak threatened to break my thumbs if I gave you the address of the secret, press-only page on their site where they've posted a lengthy list of "typo" sites, so I won't-even though it smacks of media elitism. But in glancing over the list, I noticed a number of them traded heavily on the sacred Disney©®™etc. name. Gasp. Were sleazoid adult sites trying to exploit Disney fans' innocence? One URL, www.disnex.com, did in fact take me to an adult site: Euromodels, which should be avoided by anyone with an allergy to silicone. (The site since seems to have disappeared.) But the other three URLs on the list - www.disnay.com, www.disnry.com and www.disnie.com - led to a search-engine page. Granted, one button on the page led to a site that promised adult pictures (though I didn't manage to download any), but that hardly qualifies it as a porn site.

Apparently, it's enough for Solid Oak; they confirmed that that one button had justified the search-engine site's inclusion on the list.

What's the answer? Solid Oak would say filtering software, of course, which is a perfect solution if you don't mind being denied access to gay and lesbian sites, anti-filtering sites and The Village Voice site (all blocked by Cybersitter). Conservative activists, always busy looking out for other people's morals, would say legislation.

Perhaps an easier solution is to teach kids how to spell.

EXPLETIVE, SWEET EXPLETIVE

Richard Milhous Nixon's greatest sin wasn't the break-in at the Watergate or the milk money or the secret bombing of Cambodia-it was the cover-up. I'm not talking about his Herculean efforts to conceal his misdeeds from Congress and the world, but rather about his decision to snip precious and telling bits of conversation from all those Oval Office tapes, thus depriving the American people of their right to know and introducing the zesty phrase "expletive deleted" into common parlance. What did he really think of Bobby Kennedy? Millions went still wondering to their graves.

Now, thanks to the magic of the Internet, faithful reader Tom Hartley has put the power of the expletive into your hands on his site, Restore the Deleted Expletive (www.freespeech.org/bullwinkle/thedick.html). Using snippets of actual presidential conversation, Hartley gives you the opportunity to insert your own expletives into the chief executive's conversation. Granted, the harsh language used on this site (ranging all the way from "aw shucks" to "poopy pants") is not for the faint of heart or hardened of artery, but isn't restoring the full majesty of Nixon's conversations worth the price some of us have to pay?

HUNTINGTON STREET BLUES

Speaking of sites that made me laugh till I wet my pants, the official Web site of the Huntington Beach Police Department (www.hbpd.org) is a must-see. The HBPD has come in for its share of negative publicity over the years, like criticism of its Nazi-esque tactics during the annual Fourth of July riots. But its perky little site makes me wanna pack up my troubles in my old kit bag and smile, smile, smile. I don't know-maybe it's the tinkly rendition of the theme from Hill Street Blues playing relentlessly in the background (in fact, it's tootling along on my computer as I type this). Maybe it's the little animation of the surfer being stalked by circling seagulls at the top of the page, which had me wondering if he should have invested in protective headgear. Maybe it's the gory pictures of traffic-accident victims (the one of the woman punched through her steering wheel by a drunk driver had a certain je ne sais quoi). Or maybe it's the tiny police car chasing a speeding motorcyclist across the page, followed by the inevitable crash-and-burn.

Whatever the case, I haven't seen death, dismemberment and human tragedy treated with such cheery insouciance since Serial Mom. Go there today. You will not be disappointed.

Contact Wyn at machineage@ mediaone.net.

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